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With her new book, Transaction Histories, Donna Stonecipher cements her reputation as master of the prose poem. But the book also offers an opportunity to introduce Stonecipher, one of the most important poets working now, to a broader reading public. Issues of cosmopolitanism and displacement have long occupied Stonecipher’s work and now, with the current turn in world politics, possess renewed urgency.
Stonecipher lives in an ever-shifting, diasporic world that has no secure borders and no solid ground—a world where the ruins of old schemes of domination are crumbling.
Poet John Yau, who selected Stonecipher’s book The Cosmopolitan as the 2008 National Poetry Series winner, describes her as a “global flaneur.” Though American, Stonecipher grew up partly in Tehran and has long made her home in Berlin. Imaginatively she lives in an ever-shifting, diasporic world that has no secure borders and no solid ground—a world where the ruins of old schemes of domination are crumbling and the genuine recedes into the ersatz. In Stonecipher’s work, there is nothing of the breezy, unruffled cosmopolitanism of old travel writing, of an intact I who feels at home everywhere.
Stonecipher’s poems are full of elements reminiscent of prose fiction: scene changes, multiple voices, shifting pronouns. Their central dramatic tension is between a poetic persona—who is prone to nostalgia, or looking for the timeless and the infinite—and a cosmopolitan wanderer who is drawn to variety and new encounters. Both are subject to irony, but they need each other to retain their personhood in a diverse and changing world. Stonecipher shows us our bafflement, our exposure, our nostalgia, in the uncanny images and sharp paradoxes of contemporary life. She also shows us how to take amusement, wonder, and even pleasure in our rootless condition.
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Stonecipher’s thematic interests cannot be separated from her formal innovation in her chosen genre, the prose poem. Her formalism, quite different from the improvisatory riffs and surrealist jumps characteristic of the genre, balances the riot of speakers and points of view present in her work, talking with or against each other. These dramatize the “innumerable interractions” characteristic of cities, as Charles Baudelaire put it when he created the modern prose poem. The form becomes an analogue for the fluctuating social and architectural spaces of modern urban life, which we approach with maps and designs, but experience incrementally and locally, making constant adjustments. In Stonecipher’s hands, the form takes on a new rigor, turning Baudelaire’s “poetical prose,” with its “lyrical impulses,” into something more substantive, less gestural. If there is an ambulatory feel to the writing sentence by sentence, thrilling in its openness to the world’s variety and unpredictability, the path is steadied by a strong sense of flexible aesthetic order and nuanced, evolving thought.
Collage is a frequent feature of prose poetry. But unlike modernist collage, with its unease about rupture and dissonance, Stonecipher accommodates heterogeneity without suppressing it. In a “Note to Readers” in The Cosmopolitan (2008), she informs us that the book explores “my generation’s relation to quotation and collage.” Toward this end, Stonecipher uses the unlikely metaphor of inlay, a craft in which slivers of woods, semi-precious stones, and shells are set into a wood surface to create a design. It is mostly employed in fine furniture, but Stonecipher puts it to surprising extended use in The Cosmopolitan. In each of the book’s twenty-two “Inlay” poems, Stonecipher introduces a literary quotation (from the likes of Franz Kafka, Zaha Hadid, and Sei Shonagon) halfway through, and the reader works to discover a relationship. The quotation functions quite differently from an authoritative epigraph, which the reader encounters before entering a text. The “inlay” is, to use the language of cosmopolitanism, a “guest” in the host poem, at its center but remaining other, neither ruling the poem nor subordinate to it.
Stonecipher uses similar if less overt strategies throughout her work that sustain difference without disrupting aesthetic wholeness. White space, for example, is a crucial tool for her, and it performs a variety of functions. In her first book, The Reservoir (2002), she uses indents to create serpentine text shapes that resemble rivers, seeming to carve the book’s pages. In her fourth book, Model City (2015), the uniform white space between paragraphs suggests planned city blocks, while the reading experience brings the surprise and variety of busy streets where we navigate within the city’s gutters and borders, forging our individual paths. In the “Persian Carpets” series in her new book, she creates gaps inside sentences, imitating the ancient weavers’ abrash, deliberate flaws that acknowledge human imperfection.
Wordplay jumpstarts thought where ordinary communication breaks down.
While her attention to the page and her love of imagery link Stonecipher’s work to the visual arts, she is also proficient in that rare and much-maligned facility, verbal wit. She is a master of the aphorism, the balanced formulation: “Remember the lesson of the elevator: welcome everyone, expel everyone.” But Stonecipher foregrounds the materiality of language (she loves anagrams, homonyms, puns, riddles, false cognates), its diversity, slipperiness, and winding etymology. Language is at once the instrument of our reasoning and a source of delight. “She even tried to trick her mind into associating the letter ‘g’ with pleasure, like the silent ‘g’ in sigh. Like the sighs she made under her lover, who did not like to speak during sex.” The design of language is full of incongruities, ugly words for beautiful things (“pulchritude”) and beautiful words for ugly things (“effluvia”). Stonecipher works as a translator, and the introduction of foreign words (mostly French and German) reminds us that the cosmopolitan must tread this textured linguistic ground. There is no fixing of word to truth, and no langue but in parole. But there are lessons to be learned from languages that “have only one word” for “‘history’ and ‘story’,” for “‘luck’ and ‘happiness’.” “All the guilt-ridden people sitting in therapy week after week, he thought, could really learn something from languages, which don’t ever apologize for their deficiencies and their insufficiencies, for their omissions, obsessions, obscenities, flagrancies, fallacies, or farragoes.”
All of this verbal playfulness, combined with narrative density—forking stories, ellipses, non sequiturs—are demanding on the reader. But Stonecipher is fully aware of the risks and mixed motives involved in subverting the conventional channels of communication. “She wrote, I want people to want to work hard to see through my (really quite superficial) opacity. He wrote nothing back.” While there are gaps, arguments and stories are resumed. For all its shifts and leaps, there are few loose ends or dead ends at the level of the art here, though there are many at the level of life.
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The “Portrait” series is composed of the records of a barge as it moves around the world picking up garbage from rich countries and trying to deliver it to poorer ones.
In Transaction Histories, Stonecipher’s wit is darker than before, with a tragic dimension inflected by a mounting sense of the absurd. The violence of history and our looming environmental crisis are front and center, but there is also a notable absence of harangue. The aim is to make us see the world we have made. The book opens relating the details of a romantic breakup, and on the whole we find Stonecipher here more skeptical of romance than in previous volumes. Likewise the urban flânerie of the cosmopolitan, so often her subject, is called to account. What can cosmopolitanism mean when we lose the sense of place in endless displacements and replacements, in the endless cultivated refractions of “nature” that Stonecipher skewers in the book’s “Landscape” poems? And what are we to do when the trash is piling up in islands bigger than Texas? Stonecipher depicts our current, morally inadequate solution in the book’s “Portrait” series, composed of transactional records of a barge as it moves around the world from port to port, picking up garbage from rich countries and trying to deliver it to poorer ones.
The book’s title encapsulates its themes. “Transaction” implies business across boundaries, but Stonecipher suggests that even intimate, intellectual, and social relations are increasingly inflected with this impersonal quality. She comically renders the backdrop of postmodern consumer culture in its transactional machinery (ATMs and illuminated TV towers, little airplanes towing banners), and its fetishized consumer products (Gucci jeans and designer ice cream, “staged” homes and faux everything). Desire is registered less in lyrical flights than in self-protective lures (“Come, I said to you from behind a wall of glass lined with bird stickers, come kiss me”)—in enigmas, disputations, evasions, lies, and disappointments. “We heard that he had gone into the glazier’s and ordered three new windows and a dozen donuts.” There is plenty of glass, but little transparency. Wordplay jumpstarts thought where ordinary communication breaks down.
“Histories”—the title’s second part—are made of such transactions, and the historicity of all human arrangements is a central theme, the counterpoint to utopian model cities and even planned obsolescence. In this book we are well into history as farce. “Dethroned demagogue[s],” especially Hitler and Lenin, haunt the landscape, but political history is only one dimension of a world strewn with relics and ruins that continue to affect it. The borders between past, present, and future are no more secure than national borders. Both life and art, Stonecipher’s work asserts, are subject to time, to rot, but time leaves a remainder as it proceeds by “aftermath after aftermath after aftermath.” Strange space/time incongruities exist within us and around us, and the prose poem, with its tensions between continuum and reverberation, provides an ideal form for exploring this state. Memory mansions yield to the hodgepodge of the modern city: “The old musical theater had been turned into a parking garage, but nobody had bothered to remove the ornaments, the gilding, the chandeliers . . . the dark red velvet loges.” We are essentially homeless in time: “It was like watching the snow slowly powder over the construction site across the street, which will one day be a hotel, the snow filling in the space temporarily where one day there will be permanent temporariness.”
The borders between past, present, and future are no more secure than national borders.
In the book’s title series of poems, the ironist overtakes the lyricist, often turning on clichés and proverbs, linguistic trash repurposed. The stagnation and ennui can be felt in the phrasing which is less wordplay than redundancy made resonant: “the mistrust of mistrust,” the “sheep in sheep’s clothing,” the “hunger hungrier than any other: hunger without appetite.” There are lots of “transactions” in this series, mostly in dialogue form, though there is little communication or reciprocity. “The fish cannot love the fisherman,” according to a proverb Stonecipher recalls, which she then turns inside out, testing it against experience.
The book’s fourth series, six poems titled “Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance,” explores the “transaction” between words and world, between literal and abstract, and hence between the body and the spirit, self and world (“the Sudetenland of her body” with its “amber room”). These poems probe etymologies (the “dream” in “trauma,” the “invisible hand” in “manufacture”). Imagination reasserts its place in these transactions, playing vertically in puns and metaphors that yoke unlike things and the abstract and concrete: “The day felt like an out-of-focus eyechart”; “late August oak leaves almost mahogony with the tarnishing concessions of summer.”
The book’s “Snow Series” is where Stonecipher most directly engages with environmental questions. Climate change and our sentimental evasions of it are referenced in melting ice caps and a baby polar bear in a zoo “ensconced in the fur of its own fate.” We are tempted to despair when in the final “Portrait” we see ‘North Americans on holiday” “still “dumping garbage” off the “Cape of Good Hope.” But if “garbage always returns,” it is also true that there is “star matter even in trash.”
The book leaves us in bewilderment; a snowstorm makes it hard to see except what is directly in front of us. Is the human rage to order a curse or a blessing? The indicator charts, like mountain ranges, don’t show “progress,” only ups and downs. “A black comb on a white shelf, or a white comb on a black shelf? The only certainty was tines.” It could be a description of the prose poem itself and its serial structure, its lyrical peaks and depths. There are no conclusions in this open system, no triumph or despair, only more effort of observation and invention. The prose poem traverses this varied and insecure ground of experience, while finding pattern and significance in the branching paths. Perhaps it can help us see our way.
Bonnie Costello is the author of many books and articles on modern poetry, including, most recently, The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others. She Is William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and Professor of English Emerita at Boston University. Her essays on travel, art, and memoir have appeared in The Yale Review, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Literary Imagination, War, Literature and the Arts, among other journals.
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